The volatile convictions of two competing legal teams – well, that is to say, one legal team and a one singular, stubborn soul – are unfortunately not matched by the filmmakers in Denial. From Mick Jackson, this based-on-a-true-story film an interesting story but one that requires particularly cleverness in being told. Ultimately it is inconsequential, as the story doesn’t doesn’t work as a cinematic experience.
Its heart revolves around the British legal battle between two passionate historians, though for one of the characters the term ‘historian’ is definitely how he sees himself, but maybe not anyone else. In one corner is David Irving (Timothy Spall), a Holocaust-denying theorist, and instantly off putting and pugnacious. His opposition is Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), an author and scholar thrust into the center of a hotly contested debate after allegedly slandering Irving in her book.
Weisz and Spall, alongside Tom Wilkinson who plays Lipstadt’s head counsel, all offer immense, impressive performances, lifting up a story that never plays out as the tense courtroom drama it wants to be.
Instead, Denial hits a whole bunch of familiar dramatic marks, but never in a concerted fashion. Irving is clearly the villain, but there are a couple half-hearted attempts to humanize him before the film moves on, perhaps in an attempt to challenge the viewer. Lipstadt, meanwhile, is meant to be the determined heroine, and a motif that follows her on morning jogs, in whichever city she’s residing. However, these specific focuses aren’t balanced out properly with the grander, more important idea at the film’s heart, and thus serve to distract and minimize the film’s importance.
Elsewhere, something both refreshing and strange is the turn by Andrew Scott. His character Anthony is another counsel (his job is decidedly different than Wilkinson’s, because of the arcane way in which the British court system works), and provides excessive dry humour, wit, and tenacity that steals every scene. It’s entertaining, but again, doesn’t fit into any coherent tone.
Denial does indeed have some fascinating discussions about the law, the media, and the importance of winning over being right. These conversations often put Lipstadt on the defensive, a strangely weaker position,which undermines her heroine quality. Then again, by the end of this paint-by-numbers film, everything comes together nice and easy.